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How to be cool

He's cool. Are you?

Back in the 1970s, Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan put forward a theory in Microcosmos that bacteria weren’t so much at the bottom of the food chain in so much as the driving force for the world, and that we were merely vessels that carried around collections of bacteria. It built around Gaia theory from James Lovelock that nature could really be considered one single self-regulating organism.

Ah, doesn’t it make you nostalgic for the glorious days of the hippy 70s, when everyone listened to Janis Joplin, smoked copious amounts of gear and free love ruled hey? Except that these weren’t new age hippy types – Lovelock, scientist and ex NASA consultant, Margulis an acclaimed microbiologist (Richard Dawkins is fan) and Sagan, a renowned science writer. And what’s more, evidence is starting to come together that they might well be right.

This topic is enormous. And this post will be short. So I’ll hold off for now on what it would mean for politics, economics and philosophy, as well as leaving aside Lovelock’s predictions of the death of 80% of the human race by 2100, how it can shatter the notion of free will, techniques to change your own bacterial microbiome, and a number of other gnarly issues that are too mind boggling for now. Instead, just this one question: do bacteria affect our personality?

How to create panic, aggression and fear

In an example of a particularly cruel and vicious feedback loop you can pretty much destroy someone by disrupting their gut flora which in turn affects their ability to absorb nutrients, which in turn exacerbates the problem, additionally creating a whole host of other deficiency related symptoms. It’s well known that numerous diseases are correlated with differing gut flora – the obese, the depressed, the autistic to name but three are all tightly correlated with marked differences in gut flora from controls. However, the science is evolving – we’re still a couple of years away from finishing the human microbiome project. And besides correlation isn’t causation right? So what if the gut flora is disrupted? Does one really cause the other? Well, here’s a pretty compelling example:

If you want to induce a panic attack in a perfectly well-adjusted person, it’s pretty simple. Induce bile production by using the hormone cholecystokinin on an empty stomach, and most people will flip out, with symptoms ranging from high anxiety, to difficulty breathing (sample study – there are hundreds). This is how they test some anti-psychotic drugs pre-market. But  this is in the lab - bile production without food is not natural right? Well not, not unless you’re under the spell of some bacteria that’s disrupting normal play.

Take for example helicobacter pylori. It’s a negative gram bacteria responsible for stomach ulcers, present in over 50% of the world’s population. Now the exact mechanism isn’t clear but people with stomach ulcers have overgrowth of helicobacter, and helicobacter increases bile production. Once helico is detroyed with antibiotics, conditions return to normal. So here’s where it gets interesting. Psychosocial factors with ulcers have long been speculated. But specifically, with helicobacter, suffers can expect:

-          Increased levels of  suspicion, aggression and tension

-          Disharmony and disequilibrium of emotion

-          Increased levels of anxiety

And once helicobacter is eradicated? They disappear.

And how does helicobacter flourish? Well it thrives in the lining of the gastrointestinal tract, and by no small coincidence, gluten disrupts the lining of the GI tract – especially refined flour without the protective effect of the bran. Some scientists are starting to wonder about the same connection between white flour and stomach ulcers - and by association, mental health too.

In short, white flour is screwing with people’s minds at the same time as their bodies.

Grizzly. But leaving the negative character traits aside, it’s not all bad news because if certain bacteria can cause illness and mental problems, there’s a positive side too right?

How to be increase sex appeal, be incredibly witty and stunningly clever

The problem is that the research isn’t yet complete but I'm in no doubt; this is the holy grail of research right now. But it is feasible that as much as there are bacteria that turn people into lethargic lumps, there are bacteria that make people better, faster, funnier, cooler ... and well you name it. So far, experiments have been limited, such as this one, showing learning and memory increase with a more varied diet (increased bacterial diversity) in mice. There will be more, just not yet. But you can rest assured that every major food manufacturer has R&D labs experimenting with gut flora right now. In the meantime, it’s not too much of a wild guess to say a healthy unprocessed foods diet combined with staying away from antibiotics where possible, NSAIDS and junking all that cleaning shite labelled ‘anti-microbial’ would be a good start. Restoring damaged gut flora is complex – more on that later.

Where next?

The implications of all this are enormous. If for example helicobacter pylori is spread, or promotes overgrowth through refined wheat, then it follows that if you want to properly screw up a population, dumb them down, keep them fighting each other at the weekend, operating at a low level, all you need to do is to feed them all a high processed wheat diet. Ironically, the conspiracists suffering from intense paranoia who believe this is a treacherous government plot to keep the oiks watching TV, are also the ones most likely to be suffering the effects of a food-induced overgrowth of helicobacter pylori, thus tipping them over the edge causing them to run off and join the Moonies.

But this goes even further. Bacteria clearly influence personality, but some scientists are speculating that gut flora determines personality. Never has 'you are what you eat' been so  true. If you've ever met someone with the personality of a bag of Doritos, now you know why. Scary thought. Searching around, I found some other blogger who thought of the connection between gut flora and personality 4 years ago, way before much of the research on gut flora had even begun. The guy is a veritable genius, and discusses commissioning research into how gut flora has affected the national character of the United States. If you have a couple of spare million – get in touch.

In the meantime, just be cool.

Photo from Tio Javi

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  1. I had the personality of Pepsi *and* Doritos during most of my teenaged years and early 20s.

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